Mission to Montana


I wake up to a brand new world. Just two days after leaving New York City and Iím on another planet. It is so great to be out here, not here in Sturgis really, but to be out west where the roads are open and broad skies extend across the horizon. The weather looks poor, and I know Iím going to get rained on today, but it doesnít matter. Iím here, out in the middle of nowhere, and thatís exactly where I want to be. Iím headed to Montana, my favorite state. Now that Iíve ridden through the entire lower 48, people always ask me what my favorite state is. Montana wins hands down. Itís got everything Iím looking for: smooth open roads, beautiful scenery, mountains and plains, and less than a million people in 145,000 square miles. And then thereís Glacier National Park.

The thermometer reads 52 degrees in Belle Fourche, or 57 depending on where you conduct your banking. Itís cold and raining but I donít really care. To be out here again, back on the road, doing what I love to do: this is what it is all about. I do wish my heated vest were working properly though. It seems to be switching on and off randomly or maybe itís just me.

US-212 starts out of Minneapolis somewhere, turning out of a mess of interstate, then shoots across the barren plains of South Dakota. It arches up through the southeast corner of Montana before it reaches the Crow Indian Reservation, then melds with the interstate south of Billings. Finally, like some symphonic climax, it breaks off to become the Beartooth Highway, rising 11,000 feet before it swoops down into Yellowstone National Park. When youíre coming out of Sturgis, heading west, there are two ways to get into Montana. The usual route takes you on I-90, through Wyoming, then turning north to Sheridan and Billings. But after the past two days, Iíve had enough of the interstate. Iíd like to see what this straight-line part of US-212 has to offer. Some people say itís a boring road, but how bad can it be? Sometimes a boring road is just what Iím looking for.

The road trims off the corner of Wyoming for a few miles, then an hour out of Sturgis Iím in Montana. I pass by a couple of small U.S. Air Force installations, tiny fenced off areas, about the size of an acre, with a small building and big satellite dish. The sign says "Leep Out" or else. Lots of threats and legalese. Then I realize that I just passed an underground nuclear missile silo. Iíve seen them from the air, on a cold clear day when picking out the circle from 30,000 feet is easy. You know youíre in the middle of nowhere when youíre passing missile silos on the side of the road. This place could get nuked and no one would even notice.

There are almost no cars on this road, and itís as open as can be. Yes, it is rather straight but it rolls over hills of green, then yellow, then brown, then green again. The gray-blue sky melds together with the stark white road, a faded yellow line guiding me forward. I blend in with the horizon as the bike purrs along. We are one now, the bike and I, transforming a rhythmic exercise into a soothing mediation. I love this road.

My trance terminates with the route, at Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument, and the rain has ended as well. The site marks the controversial June 1876 battle between troops of the 7th U.S. Cavalry and a force of Sioux and Northern Cheyenne warriors. The monument contains portions of the battlefield, a museum, and the Custer National Cemetery, named for Lieutenant Colonel George A. Custer, who, along with the 260 soldiers under his battle command, is buried here.

I turn southwest onto a staircase road numbered 313 which ends at the Yellowtail Dam on the northern end of the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area. Here the Bighorn River has cut into the faultline between the Pryor and Bighorn mountain ranges, carving out one of the deepest, most dramatic canyons in the United States. In 1968 the Yellowtail Dam was completed, and the resulting 71-mile-long Bighorn Lake extends the full length of Bighorn Canyon. Much of the area around the canyon is Crow reservation land, off-limits to visitors. I head back to St. Xavier and turn straight west on the Pryor cutoff road. There is nothing here; just this well paved path that winds through the reservation. In Pryor the pavement turns to gravel.

The motorcycle Iím riding, a 1998 BMW R1100GS, is designed to be taken off-road, but I havenít tried it yet. Iíll be riding about 1,000 miles of gravel and dirt in Alaska, and Iíve been thinking I better see what this baby can do. Iíd rather do it now, in a test environment where I can take my time, be comfortable, and learn how the bike handles, rather than find out what itís all about in the middle of a torn-up section of the Alaska Highway. So hereís an opportunity, a twenty-mile stretch of unpaved road to Edgar, and Iíve got just the bike for the job. Just do it.

I take it slowly at first, sticking my toes in the water. The GS is solid and smooth. I turn it up a little, and the bike stay stuck. In a few minutes Iím doing 50 miles-per-hour and the motorcycle doesnít hesitate at all. No slipping or sliding whatsoever. This is cool. This is very, very cool. Last year, I took my R1100RS on a few gravel roads, but it never felt all that great. But this is entirely different. The GS is made for this stuff, just eating it up. This bike is pure genius.

I reach Edgar and the end of it all too soon. I want more. I ride over to Joliet and turn up route 421, the middle section of which is shown as unpaved on the map. But the map is wrong and the road is paved from end to end. By the time I return to I-90, near Columbus, the sun is fading. My fun for the day is over.

Just west along the Absaroka Range is Livingston, I presume, and my stop for the night. From here I can head north up US-89 or continue on I-90. Iíll figure out which way I want to go in the morning. Meanwhile, the Paradise Motel, at the head of the Paradise Valley, offers an inexpensive room and a reasonable meal.